Backwards and Beyond: Neuroscience and Disability in Robert J. Sawyer's WWW Trilogy

Tuesday, 07 May 2013 01:30

Good news! My proposed paper was accepted for the Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre conference at McMaster this fall. I'm particularly excited about writing and presenting this one, since it will be my first try at crafting a theoretical framework in a conference paper (more than simply presenting an analysis). Here is my proposal:

Backwards and Beyond: Neuroscience and Disability in Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW Trilogy

In Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy (Wake, Watch, Wonder), Caitlin Decker is a blind teenager who is given technology that enables her to see both the physical world and the virtual realm of the internet. She becomes a figure that stands between a human past where intelligence is characterized as singular and “primitive” (represented by the apes Hobo and Virgil) and a “posthuman” future where intelligence is multi-faceted and supported by a great number of organic and inorganic technologies (i.e,. the spontaneous AI, Webmind). Framing my reading of the books within Disability Studies, I propose that Caitlin’s prosthetic enhancement, as well as the novel kinds of intelligence displayed by both the apes and Webmind, disrupt the Western cultural construction of disability as a biomedical condition that can be known, contained and controlled.

In Cultural Locations of Disability, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell contend that the disabled body is often characterized as temporally in flux: “As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy’” (32). Given that current neuroscience demonstrates that the brain is far more complex than previously understood--moving away from the study of the single neuron to positing that “communities” of neurons act together to complete a task, allowing for the direct integration of prosthetic technology into the brain (see Miguel Nicolelis’ Beyond Boundaries)--the Western biomedical model’s conception of disabled bodies as “primitive” or limited must be reconsidered. I will theorize how the threats to normative human embodiment displayed by the “enhanced” disabled/deviant bodies in Sawyer’s WWW trilogy reflect the advancements in neuroscience that have disrupted the distinction between the “primitive” and “human” being. My reading of the science fiction series will address the necessity of changing our Western understanding of what constitutes intelligence and ability, and which bodies are therefore entitled to autonomy and self-determination.

Works Cited

Nicolelis, Miguel. Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connection Brains with Machines -- And How it Will Change Our Lives. New York: Times Books, 2011. Print.

Sawyer, Robert J. Wake. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2009. Print.

– –. Watch. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2010. Print.

– – –. Wonder. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2011. Print.

Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.

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